It’s Dreams Month here at Man Repeller, and there have been a lot of conversations around the office about what happens in our heads while we sleep, which got me wondering: Should we actually pay attention to our dreams? I asked scholar of psychoanalytic theory Rebecca Reynolds to help me answer that question. As a student of Freud, Reynolds believes that dreams are windows into the unconscious; she agreed to dig into some of ours for the sake of themed journalism between writing her dissertation and teaching classes in Freudian psychoanalysis at the University of Essex. Below, her explanation of dream interpretation, plus her specific analyses of Team MR’s dreams.
Dreams are messages from you to you. They might seem like cryptic messages, but what if I told you they’re more like emoji tableaus? Think about it: As one-character metaphors, emojis operate on the principle that, as shared symbols, they evoke similar associations and feelings for many of us. They are EXAMPLES. The same is true for familiar dream tropes — fear, falling, feeling unprepared.
Other symbols, however, carry very specific, very personalized meaning that can be more difficult to “decode.”
Of course, the dream dictionary I regularly consult tells me that a gift signifies generosity, turtles indicate cautiousness, and voicelessness suggests a lack of personal power. While I don’t doubt any of that to be true, I do ultimately stand with Freud on this one: There is no 1:1 ratio between symbols and their meaning, no universal cipher. Rather, each symbol that appears, as trivial as it may seem, is linked to a feeling, a mood, a memory — and those links are the result of personal experiences or associations. I think you know what I’m getting at…humor me as I reinforce the stereotype: What do YOU think your dream means? Yes, you might be your own best analyst, but read on for some suggestive starting points for interpreting your own unconscious projections — based on real Team MR dreams.
The Falling Dream
I’ve had a recurring dream since I was a child and I’m 31 now: Every time I get really sick, with something typically involving a fever, I dream that I’m falling in a dark space with big, life-size feathers all around me. I fall until I see a mattress in the distance that looks soft and inviting, but when I land, it’s always rock-solid. The landing never lasts long because I usually drift off from whatever night cold meds have induced my slumber. It’s very strange and always an indication of how sick I am.
— Celia, Visual Director
What strikes me most about this dream is the discrepancy between expectation and “reality.” Let’s start with the feathers: Unless you’ve got a deep unconscious desire to pursue ornithology, you likely associate plucked plumes with down comforters, pillows or puffy winter jackets. In that sense, they might suggest feelings of warmth, coziness, ease and relaxation. But when you say “life-size,” do you mean “human-size?” If so, the feathers might appear in your dreamscape as substitutions for people. Can you recall how you feel free-falling among these giant feathers — anxious or calm? This might help you identify the people or situations that the feathers represent, as the degree of fear in falling dreams corresponds to feelings of insecurity or instability (greater fear of falling indicates greater uncertainty in your waking life). As for the mattress, it could represent your support system. Its rock-hard surface might indicate a feeling or suspicion that your safety net is not as reassuring as you would like. Bottom line: Self-medication has its perks, but we all want to be taken care of sometimes.
The Stranger Dream
I had a nightmare where this stranger was trying to hurt me and then my mom stepped in to save me, but then the stranger burnt my mom with a lighter — then I woke up. Yikes. Another awful nightmare I had involved strangers throwing poison dust on other strangers. The poison caused people’s faces to swell until they couldn’t breathe (like an allergic reaction). These attacks would happen at random everywhere, like biological warfare or terrorism, so dream-me was living in fear. It ended with me running away from someone trying to attack me with the dust.
— Imani, Market and Editorial Assistant
Here we’ve got a recurring theme of stranger-danger, but the thing about dreams is that they don’t produce new material — they recycle and re-sculpt the stuff of our own thoughts. That means that a stranger is rarely someone totally unfamiliar to you, but instead a part of yourself that is hidden. That said, let’s think about the nature of the danger: The fire in the first dream doesn’t have to be destructive — it can also be a sign of enlightenment, purification or transformation. The lighter especially seems to indicate a spark of some new idea, and the little flame could represent unacknowledged passion or desire. The poison in the second dream would denote something in your life that is causing sickness or distress. Maybe you’re carrying negative feelings or anxieties that are harmful to your well-being. Or maybe you’re feeling especially suffocated by a situation or relationship, as the allergic asphyxiation suggests. Either way, it seems you feel vulnerable and disempowered, and these dream attacks are unconscious memos about a situation you need to face. Together, these two dreams indicate that SOMETHING, probably a personal realization or transformation of some sort, is demanding your attention — and that of others.
The Teeth Dream
I know this is cliché, but I often dream that my teeth are falling out. Not just falling out, but being ground out of my gums by my very own jaw. It usually starts with the realization that I can’t unclench my jaw. No matter how many times I try to relax, it snaps back shut. Soon, my teeth start to loosen from the pressure and start to break off in pieces. In a panic-induced attempt to save my teeth, I start prying my jaw apart with my hands to keep myself from biting down. I ask for advice, but no one can help. Soon my hands give way — my jaw is always stronger — and I start gnashing again as my teeth continue to break off. Then I wake up.
— Haley, Deputy Editor
Ah, the teeth terrors…a classic! Anyone who has experienced some kind of dental drama in a dream — crumbling, rotting, shrinking, etc. — knows that these scenarios are more disconcerting than your average trip to the dentist. But what do they mean? Dreams that target your teeth may reflect anxieties about your appearance and how others perceive you. Are you concerned about feeling embarrassed in some situation or worked up over the possibility of a rejection? The nature of the damage offers some suggestions. First, look at the words you’ve chosen: pressure, clenching, grinding, panic. All of these indicate a lot of force, strain or stress — quite possibly verging on some sort of breaking point (hence your teeth cracking to pieces). Are you at capacity but still experiencing feelings of inadequacy? Likewise, the fact that as this is happening your jaw is snapped shut — and you can’t seem to pry it open — signals some kind of communication issue. You might feel unable to speak or like your voice is not being heard. The dream is an indication to put aside feelings of shame or insecurity and trust the importance of what you have to say.
The Classic Squirrel Cremation Dream
I’m in a big field surrounded by chime-adorned trees. Rocks are strewn across the grass, and a big factory stands in the back of the field. I realize that I’m on the campus of a squirrel crematorium (squirrels are cremated in the factory and a rock is put in the field to represent each cremated squirrel). Then I walk into the factory and see Douglas (the redhead boy who, IRL, was head of the yearbook when I was in sixth grade) at a big, fancy desk. I scream at him not to pull the lever next to his desk (not sure why), but he pulls it anyway, and then I wake up.
— Starling, Social Media Assistant
This might be the very last thing you were expecting to hear, but this dream actually makes A LOT of sense! Word on the street is squirrels forget where they bury 80 percent of their vitamin-rich treasures, so their appearance in dreams can symbolize that you are hoarding something. Are you holding onto too much and maybe it’s time to let some things go? The counterintuitive protocol of your dreamatorium would suggest something similar: Cremation takes the whole dust-to-dust metaphor as literally as possible, and as such indicates an ending or the general impermanence of things. Rocks, on the other hand, symbolize constancy or durability. A process or ritual that combines the two (cremating the squirrels, commemorating them with rocks) suggests some sort of tension between moving on and remembrance. Now you’re probably wondering, How does Douglas fit into all this? His appearance in the dream is all about his role as an editor. Yearbooks are also about commemoration to some extent — “Ah yes, those painfully awkward years!” As the editor, Douglas gets to decide exactly what gets a place on those glossy pages, hence the lever-pulling. So my questions for you are: What do you want to let go of and how do you want to hold onto the memories that remain?
The Bug Dream
I have recurring infestation dreams (nightmares). Obvi as an anxious New Yorker, my greatest fear is getting bed bugs, and sometimes I’ll dream about that, but other times I’ll dream about the city having a locust problem, or my family having to rally around my mom because her house has termites (termites are not a Chicago problem), or pets I don’t own being covered in fleas. WHAT DOES IT MEAN???
— Nora, Managing Editor
Yep, those definitely sound like nightmares to me. Insects in your dreams usually symbolize nuisances — something is literally bugging you. Like an intermittent buzzing near your ear or that spider in the bathroom that you pretend not to see, these are minor annoyances or very small (but many-legged) problems. If we want to get precise about it, each insect might signal something more specific: A termite, for instance, might suggest a problem that is gnawing at you (or someone close to you) from the inside out. But the bigger issue seems to be the infestations, which suggest lots of little stressors that cumulatively feel like the onset of a deadly plague — or perhaps one that started small and has now become a serious problem. Consider anything you may have been avoiding or ignoring. Has it gotten to the point of being disruptive or invasive in your everyday life? Find the nest and fumigate as best you can.
The Breakup Dream
My recurring dream USED TO BE that I was rushing through an airport to make my flight and always made it to the gate in the nick of time only to discover that I had forgotten either my suitcase or hand luggage at the curb. For the past couple of years, though, I’ve been having this dream once every few months whereby Abie and I are not married yet (either engaged or engaged to be engaged), but he breaks up with me. Possibly experiencing leftover fear from the first time we broke up (…11 years ago) or this is just the new way anxiety manifests itself for me. TBD.
— Leandra Cohen, Founder
Your original recurring dream is my waking nightmare — to the extent that I check for my passport a total of 47 times on any given trip to the airport — so I definitely empathize! But dream-wise, a suitcase might indicate composure or togetherness or, alternatively, the desire for a change of scenery. In the case of the former, forgetting it curbside suggests insecurities or uncertainty about your presence of mind. In the case of the latter, however, the issue might be a hesitancy to “get away,” maybe with a dash of self-sabotage. Imagine it: You’re at the airport and some new idea or venture is ready to take off…is it excitement or anxiety that makes you forgetful?
As for the more recent dream, it sounds like you’ve analyzed this one already. When our partners appear in our unconscious projections, it usually represents some aspects of the waking relationship and how we feel about it, i.e., the wishes, fears and anxieties bound up with that person in our minds. So perhaps there are some latent worries about abandonment that haven’t been entirely processed or resolved. On a more positive note, however, dream breakups work much like the Death card in a tarot reading, indicating not a dramatic ending, but rather a transformation. Has your relationship changed significantly lately? If so, this dream is a measure of change: The relationship is still going strong, but it’s no longer what it once was. And that’s usually a good thing!
Got some dreams of your own to dissect? Drop them in the comments below.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.